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Thursday, 22 July 2010

The meaning of #StupidScientology

Let me introduce you to Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff Council.


You will like him.

On 9 May 2009, John Dixon came to London, and on that day he walked down Tottenham Court Road.

As he walked past one particular shop, he tweeted the following:

"- didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."


It was a tweet: an inconsequential electronic communication to whomsoever followed him on Twitter that day.

Indeed, it would only have been read by those followers who happened to have been checking Twitter either at the time he tweeted it or for a few hours afterwards.

The tweet would then, in effect, disappear from view on the Twitter platform.

And, in real life, John Dixon just carried on walking down Tottenham Court Road.


Now let me introduce you to the Church of Scientology in the United Kingdom.

I will leave you to form your own opinion of them, to be expressed once you have received legal advice.


One member of this organisation, which is of course NOT recognised as a "church" in the United Kingdom, did some searches of Twitter.

Presumably he used the search terms "Scientology" and perhaps "Church".

Or perhaps he used the search terms "Scientology" and "stupid".

We just do not know.


But we do know he was not a follower of Dixon's account when Dixon tweeted, and so he could not have read it when it was originally published.

Instead, the Scientologist must have been searching for tweets and when he saw Dixon was a councillor, he thought this was worthy of taking further.

(This sort of retrospective searching for tweets to then take offence at or action about is, of course, what got Paul Chambers into trouble; and it is similar to those early hour searches which must have led @gillianmckeith to pester a twitterer daring to enjoy Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.)


And so, with searches complete, a complaint was made in December 2009, some seven or so months after Dixon walked down Tottenham Court Road on that May day.


In what context should we see this complaint by the Scientologist? What is the nature of Church of Scientology? And what is the approach of the Church of Scientology to legal threats and complaints?

It could be that Scientologists are concerned and active citizens, helpfully monitoring social media for transgressions of Codes of Conduct.

However, the context I suggest could be as follows.

The Church of Scientology was once described by the High Court on 23 July 1984 in the following terms:

"Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious. [A party's lawyer] did not exaggerate when he termed it "pernicious".

"In my judgement it is corrupt, sinister and dangerous.

"It is corrupt because it is based on lies and deceit and has as its real objective money and power for Mr. Hubbard, his wife and those close to him at the top.

"It is sinister because it indulges in infamous practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestioningly and to those outside who criticise or oppose it.

"It is dangerous because it is out to capture people, especially children and impressionable young people, and indoctrinate and brainwash them so that they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living and relationships with others."



At this point, I would like to emphasise that, in substantive terms, I personally do not view Scientology as any more or less credible as any other religion; though I am an atheist, I am not strongly anti-religious; I am just anti-abuse of legal power.

And so if it were not for their demonstrable propensity to misuse legal threats, then I would not have any interest in Scientology at all.


For it is demonstrable that Scientology repeatedly uses and misuses litigation - and especially the threat of litigation - against any criticism.

As L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, stated:

"The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."



Awww, bless.


The problem with this approach, as I once pointed out to the (now discredited) British Chiropractic Association, is that one really should only threaten litigation if one can go through with it.

A threat of litigation is not an end in itself.

And so, again and again, the Scientologists have gormlessly threatened litigation, only for it to backfire.

For threats of litigation can lead to actual litigation.

And with actual litigation comes the disclosure (and sometimes publication) of evidence, cross-examination of evidence (in open court), and court judgments (which, of course can be published with absolute privilege).

Accordingly, one would expect that litigation - and regulatory complaints - would be the last thing an entity which values confidentiality and privacy like the Church of Scientology would want to get involved in.

Litigation would lead to exposure and scrutiny of all the things which they wish to keep from public view.

But they simply cannot help themselves, as they seem to like harassing critics so to get their way.

And it is in this context that I suggest we consider the complaint made against Councillor Dixon, though of course, I could be wrong.



We return to the complaint made of Councillor Dixon by the concerned Scientologist.

It read:

"To whom it may concern.

"I am writing to bring your attention to some derogatory comments made toward my religion of Scientology, such as:

"http://twitter.com/JohnLDixon/statuses/1746848544

"4:25 PM may 9th from Tweetie: ""- didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."

"I'm certain I saw other similar comments made by him but cannot prove this as they no longer seem findable in Google, which I am very happy about.

"I find bigotry unacceptable in anyone but even more so in persons in positions of responsibility who should know better, such as Cllr John Dixon."



It is an interesting letter, not least because the complainant (who I do not propose to identify and do not need to) lives in East Grinstead, in East Sussex.

The telling reference to Google suggests that the complainant was indeed simply searching for things to complain about.

So, in December 2009, a Scientologist resident of East Grinstead makes a complaint about a Cardiff councillor about a tweet sent on the Tottenham Court Road seven months before.

The complaint is received by the appropriate "Ombudsman" on Christmas Eve.


The complainant's cover letter, in handwriting, emphasises the complaint is in response to the formal query "How do you think they [the councillor] have broken the code of conduct":

"The dgatory [sic, derogatory] remark made by Cllr Dixon in a tweet (on twitter) at 4.25pm May 9th against the Church of Scientology and scientologists is a breach of Principle 70 "Equality + respect" Schedule 3 of the Welsh Statutory Instrument 2001 No. 2276 (W. 166) - The Conduct of Members (Principles) (Wales) Order 2001."


Here I can do no other than set out the Ombudsman's response to this clearly opportunistic complaint.

It is now for your to form your own view on the Ombudsman's response; however, I regard it as nothing less than utterly witless and illiberal, a document which is horrifying in how - in paragraph after paragraph of deadening bureaucrat-speak - an elected representative is held not to be allowed to criticise Scientology.


PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN FOR WALES

Report by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales on the investigation of an allegation made against Councillor Dixon of Cardiff Council, of a breach of the Council's statutory code of conduct for members


THE ALLEGATION INVESTIGATED

1. On 24 December 2009 I received an allegation from [Complainant] that Councillor Dixon had failed to observe the code of conduct for members of Cardiff Council. It was alleged that Councillor Dixon had made disrespectful comments about Scientology on a social networking website (Twitter'). A copy of the allegation is attached at Annex A.


LEGAL BACKGROUND

2. As required by Part III of the Local Government Act 2000 (the Act), Cardiff Council has adopted a code of conduct for members which incorporates the provisions of a model code contained in an order made by the Welsh Ministers. A copy of that code is at Annex B. Council members are required to sign an undertaking that, in performing their functions, they will observe the Council's code of conduct. Councillor Dixon gave such an undertaking on 2 May 2008. A copy of that declaration is attached at Annex C.

3. Section 69 of the Act provides the authority for my investigation and the production of this report.


MY INVESTIGATION

4. During the course of my investigation, I have considered the following Principles and paragraphs of the Code of Conduct:


Principle

"Equality and Respect

Members must carry out their duties and responsibilities with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion, and show respect and consideration
for others ".

Paragraph 2(1) of the Code:

"...You must observe t his code of conduct-

(a) whenever you conduct the business, or are present at a meeting, of your authority;

(b) whenever you act , claim to act or give the impression you are acting in the role of member to which you were elected or appointed;

(c) whenever you act, claim to act or give the impression you are acting as a representative of your authority; or

(d) at all times and in any capacity, in respect of conduct identified in paragraphs 6(1)(a) and 7".

Paragraph 4(b):

" You must-

Show respect and consideration for others".

Paragraph 6(1)(a):

"You must not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute".


5. Councillor Dixon was accordingly put on notice of my intended investigation on 15 January 2010 (Annex D).

6. During my investigation I have obtained copies of three postings Councillor Dixon made on Twitter concerning Scientology (Annex E). I have also obtained a copy of training records from Cardiff Council which showth at Councillor Dixon attended Code of Conduct training on 25 June 2008 (Annex F).

7. I have given Councillor Dixon the opportunity to consider the complaint against him before asking him to respond to my questions (Annex G). I have given Councillor Dixon the opportunity to comment on a draft of this report which included my provisional views and finding. Councillor Dixon chose to make no comment.


MY GUIDANCE DECIDING WHEN THE CODE APPLIES TO MEMBERS

8. I have issued statutory guidance on the code of conduct and in that guidance I stated in relation to members that,

"the Code applies to you:

- Whenever you act in your official capacity, including whenever you are conducting the business of your authority or acting, claiming to act, or give the impression
you are acting, in your official l capacity as a member or as a representative of your authority.

- At any time, if you conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably by regarded as bringing your office or your authority into disrepute or if you use or attempt to use your position to gain an advantage or avoid a disadvantage for yourself or any other person or if you misuse your authority's resources.

...If you refer to yourself as councillor, the Code will apply to you. This applies in conversation, in writing, or in your use of electronic media. For example, if you have a blog or use Twitter or another social networking service in your role as councillor, then the Code will apply to any comments you make there. Even if you do not use your title, if the content is clearly related to your role, the Code will apply".


TREATING OTHERS WITH RESPECT AND CONSIDERATION

"You must show respect and consideration for others...Members should always treat members of the public courteously and with consideration. Rude and offensive behaviour lowers the public's expectations and confidence in its elected representatives. This is the case in face to face settings such as meetings as well as when communicating by phone, letter, email or other electronic
means".


DISREPUTE

"You must not behave in a way which would reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute at any time... you should be aware that your actions in both your public and private life might have an adverse impact on your office or your authority...your actions and behaviour are subject to greater
scrutiny than those of ordinary members of the public".


EVENTS LEADING TO THE ALLEGATION AS ESTABLISHED BY MY INVESTIGATION

9. [Complainant] said in his complaint form dated 18 December 2009 that Councillor Dixon had made a, "derogatory remark in a tweet (on Twitter) at 4.25pm May 9th [2009] against the Church of Scientology and Scientologists". He said that this amounted to a breach of the principle of the code of conduct regarding equality and respect.

1O. In a letter attached to the complaint, [Complainant] said, "I'm certain I saw other similar comments made by [Councillor Dixon] but cannot prove this as they no longer seem to be findable in Google, which I am very happy about. I find bigotry unacceptable in anyone but even more so in persons in positions of responsibility who should know better, such as Cllr John Dixon".

11. In an e-mail to my office dated 10 January 2010, Councillor Dixon enclosed what he described as "the complete record " from his Twitter account. Included within that record were the following 'posts':

"-didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off' (4.25pm May 9th , 2009)

"-just noticed the Scientologis ts are following me on Twitter. Quick, everyone hide and pretend you're out!" (9.16pm May 18th , 2009)

"-just noticed I've got homeopaths joining the scientologists following me now. I can set up my own branch of Ofquack soon!" (11.22pm July 16th,2009)

(Appendix E)


WHAT COUNCILLOR DIXON SAID IN RESPONSE TO THE ALLEGATION

12. In his e-mail to my office dated 10 January 2010 which attached "the complete record" from his Twitter account (Annex G), Councillor Dixon said that a few days after the particular posting identified by [Complainant]in his complaint, he "noticed that the "Church of Scientology" was following [his] account". He added that he had not taken action to prevent them from doing so. Councillor [Dixon] said he had not, "singled out Scientology for particular criticism " and that he is "critical of anything that is not evidence-based - homeopathy, crystal healing , chiropractic , and nutritionists included ".

Councillor Dixon added,

"To my knowledge, [the Scientologists] have not approached the Council's Monitoring Officer, or the Council's Standards and Ethics Committee, my own Council Group or the Welsh Liberal Democrats" in relation to the matters complained about.

13. In his response to the complaint, Councillor Dixon confirmed that his Twitter identity is "CllrJohnDixon" and that he is responsible for the three "posts" in question.

14. Councillor Dixon said that he has been an elected member since 1999 and that he has most recently agreed to abide by the code of conduct following his election in 2008. Councillor Dixon confirmed that he has attended training arranged by Cardiff
Council on the code of conduct and is, "fully aware of, and takes seriously, [his] responsibilities" in that regard .

15. In relation to the alleged breach of the code of conduct Councillor Dixon said that,

"I do not accept that these posts breach the code of conduct in regard of either paragraph 4(b) or 6(1)a. Para 4(b) only applies under General Provisions 2(1) and paras (a) through (c) clearly do not apply in these circumstances, as I was clearly commenting in a private capacity" (see paragraph 5 of this report).

"I do not accept that para (d) applies, as the comments are not of a nature which would bring my office or authority into disrepute, as per 6(1la, nor are they in breach of paragraph 7, to secure a personal advantage or misuse the resources of the authority".

16. Councillor Dixon's response continued over three pages to set out his views on the "Church of Scientology" and seemingly to advance his reasons for not recognising Scientology as a religion.

Councillor Dixon added,

"While not wishing to assign motives to the complaint, I do find it curious that, despite obviously being aware of the post in question within a matter of days, they took six months to complain about it despite the grave offence which they felt I caused them . I am not particularly difficult to find- being the top Google hit for "'John Dixon" councillor adamsdown' - so the issue can't have been in identifying
the source".

17. When asked if he wished to make any additional comments aside from the specific question posed, Councillor Dixon said that,

"I do not recognise Scientology as a religion , and neither is it recognised as such in the UK by the Charities Commission. Even so, I do not accept that Para 4(b) applies in this case for reasons given above, and would argue that there is no issue raised under para 6(1 )a in any event".


UNDISPUTED FACTS

18. Councillor John Dixon is a member of Cardiff Council.

19. Councillor Dixon signed his acceptance of the code of conduct of Cardiff Council on 2 May 2008.

20. Councillor Dixon's Twitter identity is "CllrJohnDixon".

21. Councillor Dixon was responsible for the three Twitter 'posts' in question concerning Scientology (Annex E).


DISPUTED FACTS

22. Was Councillor Dixon bound by the code of conduct when he made the Twitter postings concerning Scientology?

23. If so, did Councillor Dixon fail to show respect and consideration to Scientologists in making his comments?

24. If so, has Councillor Dixon conducted himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing the office of member into disrepute?


ANALYSIS OF EVIDENCE

Was Councillor Dixon bound by the code of conduct when he made the Twitter postings concerning Scientology?

25. Comments made by Councillor Dixon in his response to questions posed by my office suggest that he considers his Twitter postings were not made in his official capacity. Councillor Dixon said that, "para 4(b) only applies under General Provisions 2(1) and paras (a) through (c) clearly do not apply in these
circumstances, as I was clearly comme nting in a private capacity". Later in his response, Councillor Dixon has referred to his postings as being, "quite clearly, whimsical comments, made in a private capacity".

26. Paragraph 2(1)(b) of the Code says that members must observe the Code whenever they act, claim to act or give the impression they are acting (my emphasis) in the role of member to which they were elected or appointed. In his response to the complaint, Councillor Dixon confirmed that his Twitter identity is "CllrJohnDixon". In light of this and in referring to himself as a Councillor in this way, the evidence suggests to me that Councillor Dixon gave the impression that he was acting in his role of member.

If so, does the fact that Councillor Dixon made the three Twitter postings in question mean that he has failed to show respect and consideration to Scientologists?

27.1 expect members to be respectful and show consideration to all members of the public and their views, whether or not their own views may conflict with those held by a member/s of the public.

28. ln his response to the complaint, Councillor Dixon attempted to justify the comments he made about Scientology on Twitter by way of providing case law and other examples which he apparently feels show that Scientology is not a religion. Councillor Dixon also outlined his view that the content of the postings he made were, "fair comment" and were not therefore disrespectful to the complainant or to Scientologists in general.

29. Councillor Dixon also said that, "The views of the "Church of Scientology" on freedom of association, freedom of press, freedom of speech, sexual orientation
and race are in direct opposition to my own, and those who believe in liberal democracy (meant in terms of the nature of society, rather than a political party)".

30. Councillor Dixon has commented upon the reasons he considers the complaint has been made and says that he feels that in making the complaint, my office has been "used" by the Scientologists for a predetermined purpose with some connection to their stated aims.

31. The complainant has described Councillor Dixon's 'posts' as "derogatory" and has said he finds "bigotry unacceptable in anyone but even more so in person in positions of responsibility" in reference to Councillor Dixon's actions. If so, does the fact that Councillor Dixon made the three Twitter postings in question mean that he has conducted himself in a manner which co uld reasonably be regarded as bringing his office into disrepute?

32. Councillor Dixon has confirmed that the postings were made under his Twitter identity, "CllrJohnDixon". Councillor Dixon has also said that whilst he does not accept that he was acting in his official capacity in making the Twitter postings, he does not in any event consider that his postings raise any issue under paragraph 6(1)(a) of the code as his comments, "are not of a nature which would bring my office or authority into disrepute". It appears to me that Councillor Dixon may take this view as he considers that what he said in his Twitter postings was "fair comment" and supported by information such as that contained within the response to the questions posed by my office.

33. The comments made by Councillor Dixon were publicly available on the Twitter website and I note that the complainant refers to them being revealed as a result of a 'Google' internet search . In my view, it would have been clear to those viewing the 'posts' in question that Councillor Dixon was a member in light of the identity he used.


CONCLUSIONS

34. Councillor Dixon has told me that he has been an elected member for over ten years and that he has most recently agreed to abide by the Code following his election in 2008 . I have seen a copy of the Council's training records and Councillor Dixon has attended training on the Code in June 2008. Councillor Dixon has also told me that he is "fully aware of, and takers] seriously [his] responsibilities" under the Code. I am however concerned that a member who has served his community for over ten years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the Code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions.

35. Despite Councillor Dixon's stated opinion that the comments he made on Twitter were made in a "private capacity", Councillor Dixon referred to himself as a Councillor by using the identity "CllrJohnDixon". Councillor Dixon's decision to do this ensured that he was acting in or at the very least gave the impression that
he was acting in his official capacity and any comments he made using that media including the 'posts' concerning Scientology were subject to the Code, further to paragraph 2(1)(b) given that Councillor Dixon had claimed or given the impression (my
emphasis) he was acting in his role as member.

36. I expect members to be respectful and show consideration to all members of the public and their views, whether or not their own views may conflict with those held by a member of the public. It is entirely appropriate for a member to question the views or beliefs of others, but they must be done in a way which shows respect
and consideration to those holding contrary views. Whether or not Councillor Dixon regards Scientology as a religion, others do, and while I would not wish to prevent Councillor Dixon challenging those views, the means of challenge in this case in
my view falls below the standard expected from a member. Members are also required to promote equality of opportunity for all people regardless of their religion and in not showing respect to views held by a member of the public which they regard as
religious, a member may also be in breach of this Code principle.

37. I am concerned at Councillor Dixon's apparent view that it is acceptable to publish his views on Scientology on a social networking website because he does not recognise Scientology as a religion, the views held by Scientologists are contrary to his own and what he had to say in his opinion was "fair comment and ..[falls] well short of other accusations which have been upheld in court judgements worldwide". Whilst Councillor Dixon is entitled to express his views on the matter, he must ensure that in doing so he is not in breach of the Code provision to show
respect and consideration to others (paragraph 4(b)) and the principle of equality and respect.

38. Councillor Dixon also felt it appropriate to include in his response reasons why he considers the complaint was made to my office. It appears to me that Councillor Dixon believes that the complaint has been motivated by a desire to achieve the policy aims of Scientology. There may be an inference drawn from Councillor Dixon's comments that he feels the motivation for the complaint being made to my office and the aims of Scientology should be considered in the context of the comments themselves and the alleged breaches, which would then justify his comments being made.

39. The evidence suggests to me that Councillor Dixon's posts may amount to a breach of paragraph 4(b) of the code. I also take the view on the basis of the available evidence that Councillor Dixon's conduct may be contrary to the Code principle regarding equality and respect as he has made disrespectful comments about views or opinions held by a member/s of the public, particularly as those comments have been published and as those comments relate to something recognised by members of the public as a religion.

40. The inclusion of Councillor Dixon's comments on Twitter meant that they were widely available to the public . In my view, the context in which these comments were made is more serious than if those comments had been made privately. It may also be
the case that the impact of Councillor Dixon's comments on the complainant has been greater, given the publication of the comments on the website. I note that the complainant has indicated in a letter which accompanied the complaint form that
he was "very happy" that he was, at the point of submitting the complaint, no longer able to find additional comments made by Councillor Dixon via a 'Google' search on the internet.

41. I also take the view that Councillor Dixon's behaviour may have brought the office of member into disrepute. Councillor Dixon posted his comments when using the identity 'CllrJohnDixon'. I consider that those comments were disrespectful and making disrespectful comments about views held by a member of the public whilst holding yourself out as a member, will necessarily negatively impact upon the public perception of that office .

42. I am aware that members increasingly choose to use social networking websites such as Twitter as a means of communication. In doing so, members must be aware that all comments they make are published and attributable to them. They must be particularly alert to paragraph 4(b) of the Code and ensure that they are respectful and courteous to others in what they say. If members to do not adhere to paragraph 4(b) of the Code and the Code principle to promote equality of opportunity for all people, it may be that they also act in breach of paragraph 6(1)(b) and bring the office of member into disrepute.


FINDING

My finding under section 69 of the Local Government Act 2000 is that my report on this investigation should be referred to the Monitoring Officer of Cardiff Council, for consideration by the Council's Standards Committee.




Breathtaking.

The Ombudsman's decision was then reported on Wales Online.

And then early on 20 July 2010, an anonymous emailer sent me the Wales Online link and, after basic verification, I posted the link and repeated the Tottenham Court Road tweet.

I also quickly coined the hashtag "#StupidScientology".

This was taken up by Dr Evan Harris and Simon Singh, and then many others.

By lunctime there were thousands of tweets mentioning #StupidScientology.

And by the end of the day...




So what does all this mean?

What have the events connected to #StupidScientology changed, if anything?

It may be too early to tell.

However, it appears to me that the #StupidScientology affair has two significant elements.


First, it appears that people are simply no longer scared by the aggressive and threatening tactics of the Scientologists.

Though I offered to provide pro bono legal help to anyone brave enough to "re-tweet" my initial #StupidScientology tweets, it soon became clear that such comfort was not going to be needed.

And I suspect the Scientologists' lawyers realise that their old methods of intimidation may no longer work when the sheer speed of Twitter and the blogosphere can almost-immediately make certain types of legal threats seem redundant.

There is, of course, some scope for their old methods to be employed, especially against the mainstream media; but the terms of overall engagement may now have changed.


Second, and less heartening, we seem in the United Kingdom to be in the counter-intuitve position that our locally-elected representatives have a narrower right to free expression than either their voters or Members of Parliament.

This cannot be right.


This blog will now follow the progress of this misconceived complaint against Councillor Dixon.

In my opinion, Councillor Dixon is a credit to free thought and local government - for his performance on Newsnight, and for his defiant response overall to the complaint.


This blog will also monitor closely any further attempts by Scientologists to apply their aggressive and threatening manner to free discussion on any social media.


(And, on a personal note, nothing will ever take away from the incredible joy of watching Kirsty Wark read out on BBC Newsnight the hashtag #StupidScientology. Yay! :-) )


COMMENTS MODERATION

No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

PLEASE DO NOT NAME OR DEFAME THE COMPLAINANT OR ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL SCIENTOLOGIST.

87 comments:

Engles said...

Fantastic post - just one small nitpick. East Grinstead is in West Sussex, not East Sussex. Keep up the sterling work!

Grumpy Bob said...

Russell Miller's biography of L. Ron Hubbard ("Bare Faced Messiah") provides a rather interesting overview of Hubbard and the origins of Scientology.

Lex said...

"Even if you do not use your title, if the content is clearly related to your role, the Code will apply".

So, he did use his title, fair enough. I haven't seen that it has been shown that "the content [was] clearly related to [his] role" though. In fact, it seems clear that it was a personal opinion, expressed in such a way that nobody could reasonably be expected to think it was his view as an elected person.

"particularly as those comments have been published and as those comments relate to something recognised by members of the public as a religion."

Yes, recognised by some members of the public, but not recognised by law. Let's be frank: some members of the public hero worship Raoul Moat; are we to concern ourselves with the views held by every single person in the UK for fear of offending them? Should be stop speaking now?

Fantastic blog, as always.

Yvonne Johnston said...

Excellent. I don't envy you having to chew over that Ombudsman's decision though. I assume you had to up your caffeine intake to stay awake.

Jacqueline Roe said...

Well considered piece, as usual. It's ridiculous that so many of us have to put disclaimers on our web sites and blogs, dis-associating ourselves from ourselves!

rptb1 said...

1. He used his title. 2. He was disrespectful. 3. He's not allowed to be disrespectful when using his title. It seems quite clear cut. The problem is (3), that he's obliged to be respectful of everyone, no matter how evil, corrupt, and stupid they are. How do we get that changed?

nick said...

Isn't East Grinstead the major base of Scientology in the UK (http://sainthill.org.uk/)?

Coincidence?

Steve Jones said...

I'm extremely glad to see the connection made with the Paul Chamberlain case where a wholly disproportionate response was made to an ill-judged joke in the form of a tweet.

This one is of a similar nature, although one assumes that it's extremely unlikely to involve a criminal case and conviction at the end of the day.

I think I would also point to the Gillian McKeith tweet (if is was indeed she that did it). OK - that involved a false statement about Ben's book rather than a statement of opinion. However, it propbably only damaged the princess of poo and those who were seriously calling for her to be sued are surely also guilty of over-reaction.

However, back to the point here. Whether or not John Dixon was acting in a formal role or not does not seem to me to be an issue when expressing a view about an organisation. I think it's perfectly reasonable that an elected official can be dismissive of an organisation if he or she feels strongly enough. The correct way of taking action against unacceptable views is surely through the electoral system or the political party that the individual is a member of. Should an elected representative be guilty of discriminatory, homophobic, racist or other such statements, provided these are within the scope of legality, then is is surely the political system that should bring him or her to book (which, in the wider sphere, include journalism, bloggers, political parties, lobbyists, interest groups and the electorate).

This is not to say that there aren't some aspects of behaviour that shouldn't be codified. Clearly things that are obvious abuses of power or privilege must be treated very seriously. Also, in conducting official business, then behaviour has to be clearly non-discriminatory to at least the limits of what the law states (which can include special provision for those in public office). However, for legal statements of personal opinion? Just let the political space decide it.

nb. interesting that the complainant is from East Grinstead. I believe that L. Ron Hubbard himself was a resident there for several years and was on several local committees at the time. I assume that this is a hang-over from those days.

Neil T said...

Oh dear! We pay people to conduct investigations about harmless remarks. The Welsh have this waffle about not being able to slag off a bunch on wierdos. I feel all Daily Mail. Its a mad world when you can't call a spade, "a spade" without reported by some busy-body nutter.

Jan Willem said...

"Councillor Dixon's behaviour may have brought the office of member into disrepute."

It seems to me this is an empirical question, if that is what matters, which could be answered adequately by a poll. Take a random sample of people and ask them before and after fully informing them of the case.
I'd hazard to guess the effect on the reputation of the office of member is negligibly, and may even be positive.
Now, the reputation of the ombudsman, on the other hand... I think they could have spent their time better. (Although I do like the meticulous treatment, if not the conclusions.)
But, as I said, it's an empirical question, and I'm just one data-point (and not relevant since I'm not a UK citizen).

Thomas said...

Surely coucillors can make what statements they make. The guidance for conduct is aimed at stopping someone misusing offical channels to make malicious statements, not stopping someone from talking.

If people find it offensive, I'm sure Mr Dixon will find himself out of office. Surely that is the most democratic and correct way of dealing with this, not pandering to a single ombudsman, looking for the letter of the law with no view of the broader common sense approach.

I find the whole mass of 'findings' ridiculous compared to the breviety of his tweet. The additional tweets in my mind show someone was looking for more 'ammunition'.

John Shanley said...

As a practising Jedi can I expect various Ombudsmen to rush to my defence should an elected official or representative claim a dislike or voice a negative opinion regarding the 'Star Wars' films...My fingers are poised. Seriously though, another excellent blog and I think Ms Wark's interjection of 'alledgedly' when the Councillor was quoting a Judge's ruling says a huge amount about the level of fear within the BBC regarding these #stupidscientologists.

mark j said...

It's so sad that we won't be building schools or hospitals in Wales for a while, but we must spend public money on inquiries instigated by people of belief

noodlemaz said...

I concur, excellent write-up of another disturbing situation.

I was quite shocked by the interviewer on Newsnight, 'do you now accept that what you did was wrong?' - sounds like a religious interrogation in itself to be honest.

Hope this will go the 'right' way but I guess that remains to be seen. Best wishes to him and his family, hopefully he knows that lots of people are behind him on this one.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

Out of curiosity, John Dixons twitter name was not Councillorjohndixon but Cllrjohndixon. Does the abbreviation 'Cllr' always officially mean Councillor? Although he is a councillor, it could feasibly mean something else (unlikely as this may be, but if it's a salient point...)?

Sion said...

Even if we accept that Scientology is a religion, it is still ludicrous that religion ever got lumped in with other discriminatory criteria like gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, or age as these are imposed from outside, as it were, and beyond an individual's control. Religion, on the other hand, is an opinion and no more deserving of respect than any other opinion a person holds, like political stance, musical taste, or even choice of sock colour.

Phil James said...

I have in the past criticised a certain local authority councillor for personal opinions expressed in public with the force of his office as local authority member behind them (his sign-off to letters published in the local newspaper were styled Cllr). Thankfully, he appears to have taken note of the concerns I and others have expressed and has largely dropped the practice.

So I believe John Dixon made an error of judgment, albeit minor and forgiveable, in tweeting a personal comment via a Twitter account he had previously set up with the apparent intent to use it as a channel of communication between himself as councillor and his constituents.

The disapproval he expressed was mild, whimsical, clearly about a location way outside his Ward and his local authority area, shared by many, backed by a large body of evidence, and apparently part of a sequence of Tweets of a personal nature. Its context was therefore clearly personal; the transgression was largely technical and any disrepute caused to the local authority by this minor incident is vanishingly small if not zero (and the authority's standards committee will, hopefully, come to the same conclusion).

The problem is that the Code of Conduct and its enforcement appears to adopt the philosophy that 'offence is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder'.

If a complaint is made interpreting a member's comment as disrespectful, this opinion is accepted by the Ombudsman without application of any further test. This lays the system open to potential abuse.

It could for instance lead to the complaint procedure being used by someone unwilling to bring a case in a court of law, for fear – as you have pointed out in the Dixon case – of having to disclose too much to the court about their activities, as might be required to determine whether any criticism was justified or not. Where the 'punishment' is arguably disproportionate to the alleged 'offence', one may reasonably question whether the motivation for such a complaint was to discourage legitimate criticism in future.

Under this system, not only do local authority members have to be more careful in how they express their personal views than ordinary members of the general public but it raises questions about their ability to be critical in an official capacity. MPs may speak in the House under Parliamentary privilege; a councillor has no such protection.

For example, a councillor might say to a vulnerable ward constituent in private that, in the councillor's informed opinion, they would be ill-advised, 'stupid' in the vernacular, to pursue a specific course of action such as donating their money to a particular cause. Under the Code of Conduct and its current enforcement, would that councillor be able to proffer such informed advice in public, if some might judge it to be disrespectful of that cause?

In such an instance, might it not bring the local authority into far more disrepute if the member were to stay silent than to speak out and lay themselves open to a charge, from an interested party, of disrespect?

Steve Jones said...

@Sion

In fact the position with the protection of religion in UK law is rather one sided. It is illegal to discriminate on religious grounds in work, when buying goods and services, housing or education. That might sound ok until, of course, you find out that there is an exception in the area of religous discrimination in education, and, of course, that exception is granted to religions themselves.

Not only private, but state-funded religious schools are allowed to discriminate on grounds of religion when it comes to entry. In fact the only types of schools which are not allowed to so discriminate are secular ones. That is an outrage in my view. If parents want to indoctrinate their children, then they should do it at their own cost, in their own time. It would be an interesting test case to see if it was possible to found a school which did a selection based on lack of faith. However, my reading of the law is that such a lack of religous faith would have to be defined as a faith...

It's also worth noting that religious institutions are granted several other rights to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation and gender which are not available to the rest of society.

mulhuzz said...

As always, you reach a balanced and liberal conclusion on the matter.

I do like the idea of an empirical test of 'disrepute', but I fear that it would require a level of democracy and understanding far outside the reach of your average ombudsman.

I should be able to say almost anything I like about Scientology, and, in my generalised, non-specific, opinion, the descripion of them as pernicious is right down the middle on the money.

Jamie said...

I think Dixon's being a bit disingenuous when he says his tweet was in his personal capacity - it's from his Twitter account called 'CllrJohnDixon'. However personal the surrounding tweets may be (as he mentions on Newsnight), I think it's reasonable to see what he says on that account as in his capacity as Councillor. Maybe the solution there is for Councillors to have one official/one personal account?

But regardless of that, did his comment suggest he wasn't carrying out his duties and responsibilities 'with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for all people'? No.

Did it suggest he wasn't showing respect and consideration for others? Only if you think criticising someone's beliefs you think to be 'stupid' doesn't show respect. That's too broad a definition of respect for me. (Although I wonder how much the manner - calling Scientology 'stupid' rather than 'illogical' or 'strange' influenced the decision.)

I can't quite decide whether this is a badly-formulated law, a poor interpretation, or both. But it's very difficult to agree with the Ombudsman.

BobAmser said...

Thank you, Jack! I concur with your estimation of the ombudsman's fustian response as "utterly witless". And yet I have a happy feeling that much good will come of this affair!

Welsh Dragon said...

As always JoK sets out the facts clearly for all to see. Like Dean Burnett I wonder whether Cllr is an abbreviation for anything else - my own preference is collander.

My main concern, however, is that the Ombudsman clearly thinks the electorate is too stupid to distinguish between comments made in an official capacity and those of a private nature. As I am Welsh I worry that this Ombudsman has such a low opinion of my intelligence. Perhaps he should be referred to a higher power for his insulting comments and lack of respect for the public at large.

Tony Lloyd said...

When we speak of “respect” we speak of allowing someone the rights to which they are entitled. I might “respect” your home, for example, by removing my shoes as I enter. It’s your house, you have a right to keep it how you want and (in this case) how you want to keep it is unsullied by soles. If I keep my shoes on in my house then I do not dis-respect you. You have no right over the shoes-policy in my house, though you do over your own. I would disrespect you if I ran up to you in the street and said “***** you *****”, you have a right to walk around the street without people saying “***** you *****”. I would disrespect a muslim community if I went into their mosque munching a bacon sandwich and swigging on a bottle of beer, they have a right to keep their mosque a pig and alcohol free zone.

“Rights” may seem too big a concept for “respect”, but look at even mundane or trivial examples of respect and they can be described in terms of rights.

- Shaking hands complies with the rights of people to be greeted in accordance with social norms.
- Replying to someone affords them the right to information about whether they have been understood or not.

But what right did John Dixon’s actions impinge upon? The Scientologist has a perfect right to be a Scientologist. The Scientologist also has a right to express his opinions about Scientology. John Dixon’s actions, though, did not reduce the Scientologists freedom to be a Scientologist or express the opinion “Scientology is great”. For the tweet to be disrespectful there would either have to be a right on the part of the Scientologist for people not to form a differing opinion on Scientology and express that opinion or a very different concept of “respect” would need to be used.

For those who think that the Tweet was “disrespectful” I ask: precisely how was it disrespectful? What right of the Scientologist was impinged on, or what is your alternative understanding of what constitutes “respect”?

mulhuzz said...

@jamie

on the specific issue of whether this is 'badlaw' or a poor interpretation of an otherwise good or neutral law, I think the tendancy is to argue both. The law obviously serves its purpose, it is functional and easy to understand. It includes the usual tests for reasonableness that we might expect, but the reasoning behind the law is flawed for the reasons pointed out by others, like the undue restriction on freedom of expression.

It seems to me that the reasonableness test wasn't correctly applied and that since the 'harm' was allegedly injurioius (i make no comment on the obvious motive behind the complaint) it was sufficient to cause disrepute. Feckless. Shocking. Dangerous. We should always be wary of anything that impedes our right to call a spade a spade, a baffoon a baffoon and anything else, especially when one would wager that straight talking politicians are highly valued by their electorate.

Michael G said...

It seems like the Ombudsman was just applying the code in place so to my mind, you should not be attacking his verdict.

As reprehensible as Scientology is, any justification for the comments that the Councillor made is irrelevant.

rptb1 said...

Suggestion: To protest that it's stupid to discipline councillors for disrespecting evil, can we find mundane negative statements by other Cardiff councillors and make complaints about them? Perhaps found a religion worshipping potholes. The list of councillors is easily found on the Cardiff Council web site.

Colin McGovern said...

I get the feeling that everybody's previous opinion of Scientologists is colouring this article somewhat. This seems to be a classic case of the law "being an ass."

Q) Did he write something disrespectful?
A) He called a group of people stupid. Had he written this about a Black Evangelical church, he would have been regarded as racist and #stupidscientology would not have taken off (I'm glad that it did, btw, since it represents the only chance DIxon has of getting off lightly)

Q) Was this is a private capacity?
A) Nope, it was under his CllrJohnDixon name. Law is an ass because it seems that as soon as he identified himself this way, he cannot argue that the tweet was in a private capacity insofar as he's expressing an opinion about a group of people who may or may not be represented in his constituency. They will always be able to point to this tweet in any dispute as evidence that his own prejudices affected his performance in representing them.

Q) Does the obvious attempt at harassment on the part of this particular Scientologist in any way affect the decision?
A) I don't see how it does. They didn't make him write the tweet. The only issue here is whether or not he insulted a section of the community in an official capacity and by the terms of the code of conduct, it appears he did. What would be interesting is if the ethics committee to attempt to assess the real level of insult in deciding if he broke the code of conduct. That would open a huge can of worms.

His argument that he was writing in a private capacity is somewhat weak and undermined by the fact that he created a separate private account afterwards. I'm immensely proud of my fellow twitterers for the way that they took up his case (and Jack of Kent in particular, of course) since the most likely solution now is that he gets a small slap on the wrist and is told to sin no more. The code of conduct clearly needs to be less literal than it is but this has come too late for John Dixon.

Malcolm Bradbrook said...

Surely we want politicians who can express themselves in a forthright and and honest manner. If we didn't we'd end up with bland, media-orientated people like Nick Clegg and David Cameron running the country. Oh....

Tony Lloyd said...

@Colin McGovern

How is it disrespectful to call someone, or some organisation, "stupid"? What social-right is being breached?

I can see how calling someone "stupid" fails to show admiration, but not respect.

paul said...

As I understand it, he didn't create a separate personal twitter account, but changed the name of his account to make it clear that it was a personal, not an official, account.

hartley said...

There are two seperate issues here.
Was the Councillor at fault? On balance I think he was, he should not have used "CllrJohnDixon" as a twitter ID to make personal comments of any nature, the rules are for good reason quite strict on this. It is however at the very bottom end of culpability, and not worth more than a reprimand.

Does the Church of Scientology try to harrass anyone who disagrees with it into silence? Does it hide behind the cloak of respectable religions and scream 'persecution' when criticised? Undoubtedly so, and this used to work but increasingly does not. Indeed, ex-members are now starting to sue the CoS to recover money they allege was fraudulently extorted from them.

Jan Willem said...

@ Tony Lloyd
"How is it disrespectful to call someone, or some organisation, "stupid"? What social-right is being breached?"


I don't agree that "respect" can be reduced to "respecting rights" (even if you take rights very broadly). Calling people stupid, is in my opinion disrespectful. Which is not to say that I believe stupid people and stupid organizations deserve respect. They deserve to have their rights respected, of course, but not their lifestyle, opinions or actions (etc).

If we look at a dictionary, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/respect, I'm more inclined to lemma 3 in this case (specifically regarding "sense of worth"), than to lemma 4 (which seems to be closer to your position).


3.) esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability: I have great respect for her judgment.
4. ) deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment: respect for a suspect's right to counsel; to show respect for the flag; respect for the elderly.

Tony Lloyd said...

I don't know if it's that "open and shut" that the tweet was "official"/"in his capacity as a councillor".

Not everything that is associated with his duties, his title or the council is done on behalf of the council.

If, offered a bourbon or a custard cream at an offical meeting, he chooses a bourbon he isn't commiting the council to a bourbon favouring stance.

Are his choices of ties "official council choices of ties"?

If John nips in to the loo between meetings does he do a council shit?

There are human things that we all do that we continue to do even when "on business". A quick quip about a sinsiter organisation is one of them.

rptb1 said...

@Tony Lloyd: The code of conduct is clear. He was using his title. The problem is not there, but in the fact that the code of conduct requires respect for absolutely everything and everyone, no matter how pernicious.

You can write to the council concerning its constitution at CitizenandDemocraticServices@cardiff.gov.uk, and indeed John Dixon has suggested it.

Here are the two key paragraphs from my letter:

“Scientology has a documented policy of abusing the law and other procedures to achieve its goals. Your disciplinary process has been so abused to attempt to harm John L Dixon. In my opinion, your council should apply common sense to avoid being manipulated, drop the disciplinary action, and publicly chastise Scientology for its vexatious abuse.

“You should also revise your code of conduct to clarify that it is not obligatory to act in a respectful way towards evil. Scientology has been condemned over and over again by judges worldwide.”

Steve Jones said...

I still think a lot of people are missing the point here. What this code of practice does (or at least interpreted this way) is to undermine free speech and usurp the role of democracy.

This guy has been elected to a post. He is not an employee; it's part of his representative role to express opinions. If that includes a view that Scientology attracts a lot of stupid people, then simply let democracy take its course - not let some guardian of public politeness take it upon himself to decide what constitutes due respect or not. If the councillor had expressed adverse opinions about the BNP in passing one of their offices, do you think it would have generated this sort of fuss?

I also don't buy this difference between expressing a private opinion and one as an elected representative. In this case it's is surely one and the same thing (representing the council's collective view would be a different thing). Let's have a bit more honesty in politicians and not some intervening official who will reduce everything to bland platitudes that will offend nobody.

I despair of some commentators here. They aren't liberals at all, but petty control freaks that would seek to govern behaviour and speech by a series of codified officialised blandness, rather than letting people make their own minds up.

(nb. it would be very different if an employee posted an opinion with an official title - they are not elected and not directly publicly accountable).

Dr. Brian Blood said...

I think a more intelligent remark would have mirrored the effectiveness of Arkell-vs-Pressdram.

"-didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road - must check out
http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/Cowen/audit/latey.html"

David W said...

TRWTF (the real problem) is that these standards boards still exist. Ever since they were set up, they have been used by councillors and others to harass people they disagree with. The occasional genuine case is swamped by spurious complaints, which are dealt with under a system of slow and stultifying bureaucracy, forcing councillors to never say anything meaningful in case someone disagrees with it. British politics is far the worse for any small good these bodies do.

Time for the Coalition Government to abolish them! Any genuine cases could still be dealt with by councils' local Standards Monitoring Officers, or by the courts in serious cases.

Michael G said...

Tony,

To use your analogy, if he broadcast details of his defecation on a webcam and defecated onto a image of his local Scientology branch then that would be disrespectful.

Obviously the web presents unique issues for those in public office. There is a tension between the public/private behaviour of such individuals and the impact of the web is blurring the lines.

Officials should obviously be aware of the global reach of twitter and the public nature of messages posted there.

Simply turning his profile to 'private' would have avoided these problems, but perhaps there was a desire for people to find him on twitter if, for example, he was disseminating information about his role to the people he served.

Unfortunately, the code of conduct does not have clear exceptions in terms of permissible behaviour but it was unnecessary to use the term 'stupid'.

I wonder what would happen if he had posted an elegantly constructed critique of Scientology rather than simply calling them stupid?

Tony Lloyd said...

@ Jan Willem

I like the lemma-3-respect and lemma-4-respect distinction. It nicely encapsulates it.

I would argue that the lemma-3-respect is the type of respect that must be “earned”? In this sense I respect David Moyes’ abilities as a football manager. I don’t respect Rafa Benitez’s abilities as a football manager. (I, very grudgingly, respect Roy Hodgson’s ability as a football manager. At the moment. And I’m hoping that will change).

Of course if I met any of them I would lemma-4-respect all three.

Wouldn’t you say that it’s quite reasonable to require people to lemma-4-respect others but not to require people to lemma-3-respect everyone?

But anyway it helps clear the decision on John’s “guilt”. If the Code of Conduct requires lemma 3 then John has breached it, however trivially, and rptb1 is correct that the Code requires too much. If, however, the Code of Conduct requires lemma 4, then he hasn’t breached it at all (public or private capacity).

Ginger Yellow said...

Jan, the thing is, if you use definition 3 as your basis for applying the code, then councillors will be breaching the code every day. How often do you hear councillors disrespecting (in this sense) grafitti artists or people who speed in built up areas or young people drinking cider in the park or any anti-social behaviour? It's entirely unreasonable to to expect councillors to refrain from that sort of disrespect.

Now, this may or may not be a problem with the code rather than the ombudsman, but the point is that such a loose definition renders the code pointless.

Colin McGovern said...

@Tony Lloyd - Jan Willem put it better than I ever could; suffice to say that it seems to me to be mangling English to consider calling somebody "stupid" anything other than disrespectful in this context.

A lot of people say that the point is that the code of conduct muzzles free speech. This is perfectly true, however changes in the code of conduct won't come in time for Dixon, I suspect, unless he launches some sort of challenge to the code of conduct.

Even after reading all the comments, it still strikes me is that the best he can hope for is a non-punishment but what strikes me about that is that the real victory will be:

1) Unless the punishment is out of all proportion to the crime, the attempt to harass Dixon has only improved his stature, rather than inconvenienced him in any way.
2) As Jack said, Twitter and the blogosphere have become tools for ordinary people against Scientology.

Does anybody know the likely punishment(s) that can be handed out if he's found guilty?

Trinoc said...

I can't agree that posting on an account called @CllrJohnDixon in any way implies that he is posting in an official capacity. He is simply using a title which he is entitled to use as long as he is a councillor. Is everything posted by @DrPetra said in her capacity as a doctor? Is everything posted by @CharonQC to be taken to be official policy of the Queen's Bench (or worse, impersonating a QC -- I'm not sure which)? What about if my local MP called his account something like @JoeBloggsMP (he isn't actually called Joe Bloggs of course); would every tweet count as parliamentary business?

Of course not! It is completely ludicrous to suggest that anything John Dixon posted was in any way representing his job as a councillor unless he made it clear from the context that it was.

The whole affair is a complete farce, and the fact that the Ombudsman should even consider a course of action other than summarily rejecting the clearly vexatious complaint is beyond comprehension.

weol said...

I'm amazed that a single complaint from a man in Sussex about a Welsh councillor can even hold up, especially 7 months after the alleged offence. If none of the people ordinarily reading his Twitter timeline on the day were offended then it ought not to have got this far.

Anna said...

Oh good for Dixon! How rare to find someone who won't grovel the second a finger is pointed in their direction.

I agree with his view that the opinion expressed was obviously a private one, given the context; and I also agree with you that searching for things to be offended by invalidates the complaint to some extent.

Peter ERden said...

I agree with his view that the opinion expressed was obviously a private one
He twittered it. It was not private. It is completely ludicrous to suggest that anything John Dixon posted was in any way representing his job as a councilor unless he made it clear from the context that it was. If his twitter name was John Dixon I wonder how many people would be following him. It is because he is Councilor that they are following him, so any remarks, however "witty" can be taken as being from him as a councilor.
I can say that Scientologists/faith healers/lawyers are stupid as I do not have the same duty and have not signed anything to say that I will not bring my job as xxxxxx into disrepute.

LightBulb said...

I'm on Councillor John Dixon's side here, but I can't agree that the ombudsman's judgement was witless and illiberal, or "deadening bureaucrat-speak". I think it's a model of clarity, and lays out the reasoning by which the decision was made admirably. Hooray for the bureaucrat.

This clarity helps us to see precisely where the reasoning goes wrong. I believe it's here:

(39.) "I also take the view ... that Councillor Dixon's conduct may be contrary to the Code ... as those comments relate to something recognised by members of the public as a religion."

This plainly appears to mean that the code of conduct protects anything regarded by any members of the public as a religion from criticism by elected representatives. If that's not true, the ombudsman's judgement is wrong. If it is true, then the code is wrong.

Steve Jones said...

Please folks. It doesn't matter if this was in a private context or not. It doesn't matter if a few people were offended, or if their views weren't 'respected'. What matters is that it is the electorate and the public at large that decides on the matter, not some bloody bureaucrat answerable only to a committee of those dedicated to inoffensiveness.

Artemis said...

Excellent post which left me with a thought:
Wouldn't a councillor's respect for scientology bring the council into disrepute?

Multijoy said...

"Instead, the Scientologist must have been searching for tweets"

Or, more likely, they or their PR company has a subscription to a service like Radian6 (http://www.radian6.com/).

Rob G said...

Surely, by the wording of his tweet, he could have been referring to the style of architecture or the position of the building ?
He never said "Scientology is stupid" or "Scientologists are stupid". Merely that the stupidity may transfer from the building to himself as he passed.

Just a thought.

hartley said...

'Scientology' is a set of beliefs, the organisation being discussed is the Church of Scientology. This is an important distinction when it comes to discussing legislating against religious bigotry - the law should allow objective criticism of beliefs, individuals and organisations but not attacks on groups such as "burn the Catholics" or "send the Muslims home".
Unfortunately most people (including it appears the ombudsman) have a curious mental block here with regard to Scientology. Religious experts are generally agreeed that Scientology is a religion in the sense that Christianity is a religion, but the Church of Scientology is regarded by the public to be a cult.

charlesbarry said...

Imagine if you will, while perusing the volumes of Hansard, you came across this (fictitious) passage:

"Private schools are an idiotic institution - an exercise in class warfare. They claim charitable status but they have a malicious hidden agenda: they advance the fortunes of a self-serving elite while leaving the poor to their miserable chances. They are attended by crass, inept and spoilt individuals who are only able to attend such schools because their fathers have plyed the Headmaster's greasy palms with wads of cash" -- Dennis Winner, MP for Bolstover

So in that passage you have disrepect to private schools, the individuals who attend them and their fathers, and their headmasters too. Plus you have the implication that all private schools are corrupt. Worst of all, he's doing it in an official capacity!!

But I wouldn't bat one eyelid. Most people would write him off as a demagogue, a relic of some distant period. He certainly wouldn't advance his cause.

But in Wales if Mr Winner were a Councillor, Mr Winner would be hauled over the coals by (literally!!) some bureaucrat and ultimately a panel of bureaucrats who, in some bizarre Kafkaesque way, have the power to decide what our elected representatives can and can't say.

It is not the fact that the Ombudsman was being a totally humourless jobsworth, that's life, and that's why laws are normally drafted in precise minutiae, so people can't start making such silly judgements for themselves.

The problem here is this law, which is designed(probably unintentionally) to suppress free speech. I guess we haven't got annoyed about this law before because people let offensive comments slide, or only BNP-types were attacked by the jobsworths from Cardiff.

We should live in a society where we take the rough with the smooth and one where the smooth is banned for fear of the rough.

John Dixon said...

David - you achieved what I've been unable to do for a while which is to make Bel laugh (and me too) - thanks for that. I think she feels a bit more reassured too.

Loved the post. Spot on. Still keep pinching myself that it's about me, and that it's the guy who worked with Simon Singh, Dave Osler and Paul Chambers who's writing it. Okay. Deep breath. Stop gushing.

Probably shouldn't comment on how "utterly witless and illiberal" the judgement is until after my hearing.

Lots for me to think about with all this - I hope the people who have commented don't mind if I use arguments they're presented in preparing my position, and particularly in demonstrating the degree of disrepute that people feel I've caused to my office and the Council.

I'd love to stay and comment further, but I think I've completely run out of adrenaline after the last few days - I'm barely able to keep my eyes open now, and feeling a bit guilty about not being able to keep up with the Tweets, Facebook posts and emails. Anyway, that's what weekends are for. That and seeking out cheap bread, obviously.

Looking forward to Westminster Skeptics, and over the next few weeks Bristol and Wales Skeptics too. But mostly looking forward to returning to my relative anonymity.

catdownunder said...

I had a relative who was briefly involved with Scientology. Forty four years later he was still getting communications from them. They never let go. They not only harassed him but his extended family. It is extraordinarily dangerous especially when, as here in Australia, the group is recognised as a "church" - a ruling made by a member of the legal fraternity who was involved with them and which nobody has yet succeeded in having changed.

lunathecat said...

hartley said:
"Religious experts are generally agreeed that Scientology is a religion in the sense that Christianity is a religion"

What religious experts are these? The only theologist I ever spoke to about Scientology regarded Scientologists not so much as being a religion like Christianity, far more as being like a narrow and controlling sect like the Branch Davidians (though bigger than the Branch Davidians and with more money, media savvy and lawyers) -- explicitly based around the aim of controlling the thoughts and behaviour of members to an extraordinary and unhealthy degree, enforced by physical and mental coercion rather than persuasion. In fact, I would refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult#Mind_control (except for item 3) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult#Potential_for_harm for an excellent description of their behaviour, on par with many groups not recognised as legitimate religions.

Further, Scientology is not legally regarded as a religion in a number of countries -- of which (ironically) the UK is one, except for by the Navy!

I challenge your statement on the basis that while there are undoubtedly religious scholars who regard Scientology as being the same kind of beast as any other religion, this is far from being "generally agreed."

charlesbarry said...

Ooop! My last paragraph should read:

We should live in a society where we take the rough with the smooth and not one where the smooth is banned for fear of the rough.

Phil James said...

@Hartley wrote: “Religious experts are generally agreeed that Scientology is...”

Huh? I thought it was 'religious experts' who invented the concepts of 'schism' and 'heresy'; when have religious experts ever been “generally agreed”? ;-)

To re-iterate a couple of points –

Cllr Dixon will be judged on whether he brought his council into disrepute, not whether or not he disrespected a discrete and identifiable group within society.

As it now seems that a member of that group – hardly a disinterested observer – can express an opinion from East Grinstead, which is not a ward within the boundaries of Cardiff the last time I checked, then I trust the standards committee will also take into account the contrary views of many more and far more disinterested observers throughout the Twitterdom.

We appear more or less in agreement that the Councillor's opinion was spot on (if a little brusque - one of the barriers to precision of meaning imposed by the technical nature of tweeting) and in no way disrespectful, as respect may only be earned not demanded.

QED, the councillor has not brought his council into disrepute. Case dismissed.

Mike from Ottawa said...

Folk here might find the Canadian case of R. v. Church of Scientology of Toronto (http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onca/doc/1996/1996canlii1650/1996canlii1650.html) instructive on methods Scientology uses.

Jan Willem said...

@ Tony Lloyd
"Wouldn’t you say that it’s quite reasonable to require people to lemma-4-respect others but not to require people to lemma-3-respect everyone?"

In general, yes. And that's what Law is for, basically; to protect people's rights, not people's feelings.
But I'm a bit torn on whether we shouldn't expect a bit more than that in the conduct of an elected official. Specifically, I tend toward the idea that they ought to avoid giving some people the impression they are worth less as human beings -- such as calling people "stupid" might do. They don't have to respect a person's beliefs and behaviour, but should still respect them as people (beyond mere entities with rights, but as ones with intrinsic worth).
On the other hand, that's a somewhat theoretical distinction which is difficult to apply in practice, because some people identify very closely with their beliefs. Consequently I don't think it's very useful to codify it in a rules of conduct, except as an advisory.
I do think that what John said was disrespectful in that sense (and let's face it, if he'd said it about a synagogue there'd be hell to pay). And it was unfortunate he posted it on an account that identified him as councilor, even if he used mostly for private tweets. But ultimately, I don't see any reason why it doesn't suffice to just say "try not to do it again". It's at worst something to be slightly disappointed in him about, not something that requires disciplinary action.


@Peter ERden
"He twittered it. It was not private."

There are a number of ways to interpret "private"; in some of those it is, in others it isn't. Clearly the tweet was publicly available, but at the same time it was not intended for everyone. Other than followers, someone would have to be looking for it to read it, or find it by accident while looking for something else. It's also (purportedly) private in the sense that it was not said in any official capacity.

Personally, I think that twitter should generally be treated like Las Vegas: what happens on twitter stays on twitter. There are a number of reasons why it should not be treated too seriously; one them being that 140 characters is not a lot of room for subtlety, but also because people tend to treat it as ephemeral communication even though it leaves a permanent record. Tweets shouldn't be treated with greater significance than the amount of thought they were written with. But it takes a while for our norms to catch up with the new reality.

Jon said...

This tale of woe is not unusual; I read similar rubbish in “Private Eye” about the Standards Board for England every two weeks.

I am really appalled by this sort of thing. I am an atheist and I have very serious problems with ALL religions. They are pernicious and damaging in so many ways, especially to children who have no choice how they are indoctrinated. (By the way, please try to get hold of “The God Virus” by Darrel Ray, it explains a lot.)

The reason I am writing this, though, is that I noticed the following comment from the Ombudsman:

“I expect members to be respectful and show consideration to all members of the public and their views, whether or not their own views may conflict with those held by a member of the public.”

I just wondered whether that excludes criticism of Catholic priests buggering little children as well as loonies who think we’re all aliens; I mean, it can only be interpreted as meaning that paedophiles must also be shown respect and consideration of their views, whether or not they conflict with, say, my view that the horrendous, repeated sexual abuse of children is an obscenity beyond description or that cults, the only purpose of which is to enrich their leaders and delude their followers, should be outlawed.

But hey, that's just me.

Vic Gee said...

You wrote "But we do know he was not a follower of Dixon's account when Dixon tweeted, and so he could not have read it when it was originally published."

"Could not" is not correct. I use TweetDeck and have permanent search columns set up, where any tweet that includes the search term appears in real-time, whether I'm following the twitterer or not (Many other Twitter applications support this.)

Companies have searches on their names and products. And presumably the scientologistas do something similar.

Swifty said...

Steve Swift:

I have long believed that litigation should never be a case of win or "fail to win".
It should be win or lose. If you seek damages against someone which represents 1% of their wealth, and you lose, then you should forfeit 1% of your own assets. This would instantly put a stop to opportunistic actions, and threatening actions by large organisations against individuals.

Carniphage said...

I think it would be an error to argue that Scientology is less of a "true religion" than others.

All religions were invented. All exploit their followers for financial gain. And all use their power and influence to bully and cajole. They are all guilty of abuses of trust.

So to single out Scientology is wrong, because to do so simply gives legitimacy to others. And some of those are more powerful and more abusive.

With the mess of contradictory belief-systems, it is impossible to endorse one without offending another. The most offensive position of all is to say that you are an atheist. That too gives offence because you are, in effect, calling them all stupid and deluded.

It is the code here that is wrong, because it is gags an elected politician from saying something he needs to say; What he believes in.

It is not essential that we know what elected officials think about religion? Isn't every bit as essential as knowing what party they support.

It's up to the electorate to then offer their approval.

C.

Green said...

If a high-court judge can say “Scientology is … immoral … socially obnoxious… corrupt, sinister and dangerous” and not bring his office into disrepute, then how can a Councillor bring his office into disrepute by using the term “stupid”. It just makes no sense, obviously!

Would it be possible to do a Gillian McKeith on them and get the ASA to stop them using the term "church" in any of their literature/buildings etc, if they aren’t a recognised religion in this country?

Daimiaen said...

I just wonder what religion the Ombudsman is.

Doctor Linguini said...

"(39.) "I also take the view ... that Councillor Dixon's conduct may be contrary to the Code ... as those comments relate to something recognised by members of the public as a religion.""


I am a Pastafarian
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster
http://www.venganza.org/

Perhaps councillor Dixon or other councillors would DARE to criticise Pasta or related sauces or meatballs on this forum or elsewhere? I would certainly complain to the ombudsman if such comments were made.

Adam said...

One thing I find puzzling about all this is that the complaint was made directly to the Ombudsman.

I recently had cause to report my local council to the Local Government Ombudsman. Now, I appreciate it's a different Ombudsman, but the LGO was only prepared to even read my complaint if I had already exhausted the council's own complaints procedure, which seems reasonble to me.

So why did this Ombudsman even read the complaint if it hadn't yet been referred to the council? Sounds rather fishy to me.

NotACat said...

@Colin McGovern: you wrote:He called a group of people stupid. Had he written this about a Black Evangelical church, he would have been regarded as racist

Had he written this about a bunch of train--spotters, or maybe a comic shop, it would have been passed off as a good laugh.

The difference is that train-spotters, readers of comics (or graphic novels if you will) and Black Evangelical church-goers have not been described by a High Court Judge as "pernicious", "corrupt", "sinister" or "dangerous". Neither do train-spotters or comic-readers have a reputation for wreaking litigious harassment on those who disparage them: I can only hope that any Evangelical church of any sort would consider such a thing abominable.

hartley said...

@lunathecat:
"The only theologist I ever spoke to about Scientology regarded Scientologists not so much as being a religion like Christianity, far more as being like a narrow and controlling sect like the Branch Davidians"
That's the mental block I was refering to, which your theologian also had.

Christianity and the Catholic Church are religions in two distinct meanings of the word 'religion'. One has bank accounts, employees and owns property, the other does not. Unless that difference in meaning is understood, no meaningful discussion is possible.

'Scientology' is the beliefs. The Church of Scientology is the organisation. The two are not synonymous.

A cult is not a set of beliefs, it's an organisation. An organisation can be a cult, a religion or somewhere inbetween - it's a sliding scale.

John Page said...

Sadly I am not astonished that taxpayers are shelling out for this mind numbing nitpicking.

Mike from Ottawa said...

"'Scientology' is the beliefs. The Church of Scientology is the organisation. The two are not synonymous."

Don't tell that to the Church of Scientology. They claim trademark and other IP protection for all expressions of their 'beliefs'. Whatever the theoretical difference between the CoS and Scientology, there's no practical difference.

Adrian said...

"It appears that people are simply no longer scared by the aggressive and threatening tactics of the Scientologists."

This has been the case for a couple of years now; whether this was caused by, or is the cause of, the CoS relaxing its grip, I'm not sure. Probably a bit of both. Certainly the strong moves against the CoS in Germany in 07-08, and in France last year, and the reports in the St Petersburg Times have had a chastening effect.

When I "knew" Scientology in the 90s it was quite intimidating (and John Sweeney got a bit of that back in 2007!) but the atmosphere is noticably different now.

Adrian said...

Carniphage said "I think it would be an error to argue that Scientology is less of a "true religion" than others."

Well, okay, but those of us who don't have to do everything by the book are allowed to appreciate that Scientology is only a religion out of convenience.

hartley said...

"They claim trademark and other IP protection for all expressions of their 'beliefs'. Whatever the theoretical difference between the CoS and Scientology, there's no practical difference."

That used to be true, but no longer. A significant number of Scientologists have left the Church to join other Scientology groups and organisations, just as all Christians are no longer Catholics. Like other religions, Scientology is fragmenting and reforming. That the media has difficulties with this doesn't mean it isn't happening.

I Himlens Navn said...

Hey, I thought our elected representatives were SUPPOSED to express their honest opinions, including in their official capacity? Otherwise, how would we know who to vote for?
(and who to not vote for...)
Is it not utterly undemocratic to have this Ombudsman lurking like some sinister censor in the background?

IAmATVJunkie said...

Bravo! Great post. You should be very proud of your work here. Keep getting after them!!!

Peter in Dundee said...

As someone who is entitled to use 'Dr' in front of my name, yet has no medical qualifications (I have a PhD) presumably the witless Welsh ombudsman would take me to task for using the title in public lest I mislead people to think that my every utterance be taken as reflecting on the medical profession.

Madam Miaow said...

Shame the stupid rubbed off on the Ombudsman.

clive said...

Just sent a message of support to Councillor Dixon (link at top of article) - might be nice if he got a few of these so he could forward them on to his boss.

Don E. said...

I realise that would not be applicable in the case of the complaint to the council, but more generally, bearing in mind the 1984 High Court ruling, it is suprising if the 'Church' of Scientology has not been ruled to be a vexatious litigant. Or have they?

Jeremy P said...

Wow! Who'd be an ombudsman?

It does seem that there's a basic failure of common sense here. A complaint put in such general terms should have earned at most a general reply. Is the ombudsman bound to investigate something of no evidenced material consequence or local import?

If not, then this and perhaps every ombudsman is able to be enlisted as front line combatant for every frivolous or malicious complainant.

#StupidScientology. And equally #StupidComplaintsProcess.

Mike Hypercube said...

It seems to me the rules are clear enough in their intent but there is some conflation of concepts in their interpretation:

To criticise a set of beliefs is not to criticise the holders of those beliefs, and to express some level of contempt for those beliefs is not in any way to express contempt for those who hold the beliefs. I for example was a Christian for 20 years, but was no more "stupid" then than I am now as a non believer; the belief is not the person.

I think it is therefore relatively easy to demonstrate that in the tweet in question, talking of "the stupid rub[bing] off" was a clear statement that Scientology is stupid, but cannot in any way be construed as disrespectful of those members of society who hold to the beliefs of Scientology. A trivial comparison would be if I said it was stupid to buy a lottery ticket - does that disrespect everyone who ever bought a lottery ticket? No.

The regulations quoted seem to be clear enough in their intent and possibly also in their substance, and as such do not support the inference that Cllr Dixon, in whatever capacity, was disrespecting those individual members of society who happen to believe in the tenets of Scientology. He merely disrespected those tenets, which as with all tenets (temporal or spiritual) is fair game!

Madam Miaow said...

I appreciate the difference mIke. But I am still flummoxed — if I do say that a person is stupid, does this mean they can sue me? If so, this is stupid. (And so are they!)

Culex said...

It may be safer to refer to that money-grabbing, crackpot, space-opera cult as $cientology. That's what I've always done and, so far, Xenu hasn't found me.

Yes, silly and stupid $cienos - it's your old friend, "The Infamous Culex", as one of your PR droids once chose to call me.

John said...

East Grinstead is also the base for an anti-psychiatry organisation, which appears to be an offshoot of the US CCHR who operate the museum of utter, utter falsehood ... sorry ... psychiatry.

Culex said...

The CCHR (Citizens' Commission for Human Rights) is, of course, yet another front organisation for $cientology. Throughout his life, Phattso Hubbard waged war against psychiatry, partly because it offered effective treatment of a person's mental ills unlike the woo version he promoted and partly, some say, because he was himself so delusional that he could have been locked up in a nut-house for the rest of his life. Support for that latter idea may be found in the imbecilic ramblings that make up the $cieno "Operating Thetan" levels and his other lectures, but it may be difficult to determine which nonsense was the result of Hubbard's own mental condition and which was the result of the mind-bending drugs he was taking at the time. One might, for example, suggest that no truly sane person would expect to be believed were he to recount a tale of a stroll on the surface of the planet Venus, which perambulation was rudely interrupted when Hubbard was nearly run over by a freight locomotive.

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